Are there secrets to being a good writer? What do I need to know to convince people to take my writing seriously, whether professionally or as a student?
Apart from having a comprehensive understanding of the fundamentals of the language in written form, it's important to write from the heart. Any assignment, however boring, can become significant if you can figure out how to make it personally applicable to you. Whether it's writing fiction or essays, the voice of authority comes from having a personal investment in the message you are conveying. If it's fictional, dig deep. Don't be afraid to experience unpleasant emotions. Healing can happen here if you let it, and perhaps others can be inspired by what you have to say. When it comes to writing characters, remember that most readers aren't going to relate to a character who is flawless in every way. The Dalai Lama, when asked why the Christian God is recorded in the scriptures as favoring sinners, answered that they are simply more interesting. Detail in description is less important here than compelling quirks and uniqueness of purpose. Give them a flaw, a memorable habit, or an object that is meaningful to them. Use descriptions that include eyes and hair sparingly. If you were to describe the people closest to you, what would you say about them? Surely it would be more than an outline of their physical appearance. In that vein, write about people you know. There is a lot of psychology that goes on in the writing process. People behave in predictable ways when you learn to see the patterns. Be aware, particularly in longer pieces, of what would be characteristic of them. The moment a character begins to behave in ways that do not seem true to them as people, you lose your credibility. Writing characters loosely based on people you know can help you here. The key word here is "loosely". No one wants to find themselves the villain or the idiot of a story, however innocently or well-intentioned it was meant. Counter-intuitive to the above, is an absolute necessity that every good writer be willing and able to take criticism. That doesn't mean taking every bit of advice as gospel, but learn to accept it as an opportunity to learn, consider it carefully, and then decide if your work can improve by applying the advice given. If you find yourself frantically making every change suggested, step back and reconsider the purpose of your piece. What is it you are trying to say, and will applying those changes improve your ability to convey that message clearly? On the other hand, if you constantly dismiss every criticism as malicious and ill-informed, consider your ego. There's no place for ego in art. Art is about creation, which is the highest expression of love. The ego comes from a place of fear and defensiveness, even of attack. If you can't learn to process criticism in a healthy way, you'll never get better, your work will never improve, and no agent or publisher will ever want to work with you. Even if it's merely an essay assigned to you by the most boring English teacher on earth, there is always a way to make the topic interesting and personal. Consider it a game. It will, at the very least, make the assignment easier to complete. Sometimes you'll find that a suggested edit comes from a place of misunderstanding. That's the time to take a step back and ask yourself why your words were misunderstood. Perhaps you understand the subject matter better than the person offering the criticism, but the fact remains that it is your job to make sure your point is understood. Humility is of infinite service to a writer at any stage in their career, even if that career is only as a student. It has been said that language is a poor vehicle for the transmission of ideas. In many ways it's true. It's certainly a challenge, but in the challenge is the joy.
Dickens is required reading in most schools, but he's just so hard to understand. How do I follow along when I don't understand what I'm reading?
It's important to keep in mind that many authors of the Victorian era were writing for newspapers, which published these books a chapter at a time. Authors were paid by the word, and so some of those authors, like Dickens, used a lot of them. One thing I like to do is keep a couple of 3x5 cards, which I use as bookmarks, and write down each of the characters and something memorable about them. Because Dickens had so many characters, it's sometimes difficult to know who to focus on, but eventually it will become clear. Also, his heroes were often women, as he had a soft-spot for the inequalities imposed upon the female population of the time. Consider also that Dickens was writing to change the world, and so it must also be remembered that he often had little stories written into the larger framework of the novel. These "vignettes" illustrated some important moral that he wished to convey. They are not essential to the larger scope of the story, but they are important in and of themselves. It's often a temptation to turn to Cliff's notes, or to watch a movie adaptation, and while I do think there is value in doing this in order to understand the main plot lines, neither is a substitute for immersing oneself in the language. Yes, people spoke differently 150 years ago, but there is beauty in those words, in the their usage, and in the treatments of characterization and description, for which Dickens is so famous (even if he was sometimes heavy handed in the latter). In Dickens work there is much to be learned about history, and he is very good at painting the picture of 19th century life in England, particularly in the cities. When it comes to reading authors of this or any other era, practice is key. The more you read, the clearer it becomes. If you are reading for enjoyment's sake, try starting with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" or anything by Wilkie Collins, who seemed to have an almost extra-sensory understanding that times were changing and that a little clear language and patient explanation would one day be required.
English, as a language, can be very confusing. In writing, as well as day to day communication, how do I remember the appropriate use of homonyms such as "their", "there", and "they're", or "two", "to", and "too", or the difference between "effect" and "affect"?
Even life-long, native English speakers have trouble with these, and there are some simple tricks for remembering how to use these words appropriately. First let's take the example of "their", "there", and "they're". The use of an apostrophe indicates that a word is either a conjunction (the joining of two words to make one word) or a possessive. Pronouns, however, do not adhere to the possessive rule, so words like "it's" and "they're" must be conjunctions. "They're", therefore, must mean "they are". "There" is a preposition, or a word that indicates position. So, like the word "here", "there" indicates a position. One can identify the appropriate use of "their" either by elimination of the other two possible uses, or by thinking of the word as a modified version of the pronoun "her". In the example of "two", "to", and "too", one can first consider the word "too" as having too many o's to be used for any other purpose than to indicate "too many", or "as well". "Two" has a silent letter, and, as it has three letters, but only two are pronounced, one can remember that "two" always indicates a number. "To" is another preposition. Perhaps pairing it with another commonly used word will help remember the word's purpose. "Go to" or "into" for example. As for the question of usage when it comes to the words "effect" and "affect", remember that "effect" is a noun and that "affect" is a verb. You cannot produce an "effect", without first having an "affect". The "affect" must come first, and so it appropriately begins with an "a". Also, consider that only a verb can have an infinite form (ending in -ing), and so something that is "affecting" you is a verb, and not a noun or thing, which would be the "effect." Usage is one of the trickiest elements in English, in my opinion, but it is also really important to understand. There are lots of little tricks and word associations like these one can use to remember the rules, and after a little practice, the mind begins to understand them intuitively.